Academic Freedom

Star Scholar Resigns From Northwestern, Saying It Doesn't Respect Academic Freedom

August 26, 2015

Alice Dreger doesn’t usually pull punches. So it’s no surprise that her resignation letter is more, shall we say, direct than the average two weeks’ notice.

Ms. Dreger resigned this week from Northwestern University, where she was a clinical professor of medical humanities and bioethics, a nontenured gig she’d had for the past decade. In her letter, she writes that when she started at Northwestern, the university vigorously defended her academic freedom. Now, she contends, that’s no longer the case.

What prompted her departure was the fallout over an article by William Peace, who at the time was a visiting professor in the humanities at Syracuse University. Mr. Peace wrote an essay for an issue of the journal, Atrium, that Ms. Dreger guest-edited. The essay is a frank account of a nurse who helped Mr. Peace regain his sexual function after he was paralyzed.

According to Ms. Dreger, Eric G. Neilson, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the university’s school of medicine, tried to censor the essay. The essay is straightforward in its description of sex, and includes multiple mentions of "the dick police," but the purpose is to illuminate what went on in the era prior to disability rights and studies.

As Mr. Peace writes, the unconventional approach of the unnamed nurse "injected a compassionate eroticism that made me a better man."

In her letter, Ms. Dreger writes that the university allowed the essay to be published online only after she and Mr. Peace threatened to talk publicly about what they saw as censorship. She writes that she was "disgusted that the fear of bad publicity was apparently the only thing that could move this institution to stop censorship."

Now the essay is out there, for all to see, "dick police" and all. So what does Ms. Dreger want?

She asked the university to acknowledge that attempting to remove portions of the essay was a mistake and to promise not to do so in the future. "They never acknowledged that the censorship was real," Ms. Dreger said in an interview. "I wanted a concrete acknowledgment and assurance that my work would not be subject to monitoring." That, she said, would have been enough for her to remain.

The idea that institutions must acknowledge wrongdoing is central to Ms. Dreger’s academic work. It’s a theme of her recent book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, which takes to task organizations that try to stifle academic freedom or single out scholars for their provocative views.

University officials declined to comment on Ms. Dreger’s departure. Messages left for Dr. Neilson, the dean, and Daniel Linzer, the provost, went unreturned. Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for university relations, declined to respond to Ms. Dreger’s assertion that Northwestern is not committed to academic freedom.

All of which continues to puzzle Ms. Dreger. "I don’t understand the calculation," she said. "If they care about appearances, what the hell are they thinking?"

Correction (8/27/2015, 12:14 p.m.): This article originally quoted Ms. Dreger as saying that Mr. Neilson tried to censor portions of an essay in the journal Atrium. In fact, Ms. Dreger said that Mr. Neilson attempted to censor the full essay. The article has been updated.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.